Making yourself at home despite the landlord


By Marianne Delorey, Ph.D.

Marianne Delorey, Ph.D.

I recently had a tenant accept an apartment sight unseen and move across the country to her new place.  I personally inspected the apartment and was floored by how clean the previous tenant had left it.  Nonetheless, there was a discrepancy between the new tenant’s expectations and what she was provided.  She thought the unit was a bit dusty and wanted it professionally cleaned.  Now, I am the first to recognize that everyone has different standards, and that clean to one person was not always clean to another.  However, even in my wildest dreams, I could never ask for a professional cleaner to wipe down the dust on windowsills that may have only been accumulating for a few days.

I thought about this challenging interaction, and I wondered how best to improve communication between a landlord and a tenant about the condition of the apartment and expectations people might have.

Most lease clauses specify what a tenant can and cannot do to the apartment.  The first, and most important lease clause about this is typically something like, “The tenant will not damage apartment and will leave apartment in same condition, reasonable wear and tear expected.”  This is also commonly written as “tenant will leave apartment in broom clean condition.”

In practice, I would argue that these standards can be translated into the following checklist:

  • Floors swept and vacuumed, mopped
  • Windows washed on the inside, outside if possible
  • Kitchen sink wiped down, no odors, leaks
  • Appliances wiped down inside and out
  • Counters – no debris, wiped down
  • Cabinets – no smudges on handles, no tacky feeling left
  • Bathroom – no visible dirt, fixtures wiped down, no smell

While an apartment can still be dirty even if all of the above are checked, this list is a reasonable expectation for both tenants and landlords to follow.

Beyond cleaning, tenants are also expected to not make major changes.  If they do want to make major changes, they should get approval in advance.  Most landlords will not complain if the tenant is willing to pay for a change and either promise to change the unit back to how it was before or if the change is seen as beneficial by the landlord.  Sometimes, the landlord will even pay for or make the changes him or herself.

In elder housing, some of the more common changes we see include having grab bars installed in the bathroom.  Many of the requests we see could also be called “reasonable accommodations” and typically ensure that someone with disabilities can live in the community longer.  Many elders, however, are interested in changes that are not tied to abilities, but rather conveniences.  We’ve been asked to allow them to install a ceiling fan, shelving, large pictures and mirrors, and many other items.

Despite what your lease says, don’t be afraid to ask your landlord about modifications.  If you are a good tenant, your landlord is going to want you to stay.  Between fresh paint, cleaning and replacing a carpet, a one bedroom turnover can cost $2,000.  Pair that cost with the “devil you know” factor and many landlords will allow you to make changes.  Many, however, may require you to use their preferred vendor (electrician or carpenter) so they know the job is not being done shoddily.

Landlords are running a business so they may care more about costs.  Tenants often care about comfort because this is their home.  Just like my tenant who had different expectations of cleanliness, two reasonable people can certainly disagree; you can always try not to be disagreeable in your negotiations.

Marianne Delorey, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Colony Retirement Homes.  She can be reached at 508-755-0444 or and